PM’s right to pick ministers leads to sycophantic behaviour, says Labor senator

Senator Doug Cameron believes caucus should be able to vote for frontbenchers, rather than be appointed by the party leader. AAP/Lukas Coch

A Labor backbencher has called on federal caucus to reclaim the power to choose frontbenchers.

Steve Gibbons, MP for Bendigo, has given notice of a motion to have the post-election caucus select the executive of the parliamentary party.

Former leader Kevin Rudd seized the right to select frontbenchers while in opposition and this was continued and formalised in government. Before the change, the caucus elected frontbenchers while the leader allocated portfolios.

In practice the factions played the key role in choosing the frontbench, with the leader having considerable influence. Under the current system, the factions continue to wield power over appointments.

The broad issue of reform of the party to make its structure more democratic will become a major debate within Labor after the election especially if, as expected, it goes into opposition.

Doug Cameron, a convener of the left, supporting the Gibbons’ move, said the experiment of the leader choosing the frontbench had been “a disaster. It works against ministers taking strong positions in the ministry.

"It creates a culture of reliance on the prime minister and has produced some sycophantic behaviour,” Senator Cameron told The Conversation.

Gibbons, from the left, who retires at the election, is one of two current federal MPs who spoke and voted against allowing the party leader to appoint the executive when this was approved in government.

The motion is due to be debated in caucus on June 18.

Cameron said: “You can’t argue for improved democracy within the party in general if the caucus is operating in an undemocratic way.

"I’m a strong supporter of more democracy and relevance for the caucus. And a key aspect is returning power to caucus to elect the ministry - with the prime minister allocating portfolios.”